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Learning from Israel

India should learn from Israel in how the latter manages its alliances to boost its security.

india Updated: Oct 13, 2003 15:02 IST

In 1994, the future Jaish-e-Mohammad poster boy and former London School of Economics student, Omar Sheikh was a trainee terrorist in New Delhi. His minders set him the task of kidnapping a Western tourist in India. He eventually befriended an Israeli tourist, Akhmir, on a bus from Agra to New Delhi. Sheikh then succeeded in getting Akhmir to share an autorickshaw with him. He then deliberately picked a fight with the autorickshaw driver near where his terrorist minders were staying, ensuring both got off the vehicle.

In the confessions he wrote after he was later captured by Indian police, Sheikh says he then took Akhmir to the room where his minders were staying. He woke up one of them, Shahsaab, and "told him, hiding my excitement, that I'd brought back an Israeli and all we had to was overpower him."

The reaction of these hardened terrorist was remarkable. "Shahsaab gazed at me incredulously, peered out the window and saw the 6'3" hulking Akhmir standing there?'You fool," hissed Shahsaab. "You'll get us all killed. Take him back to his hotel at once and come back in the morning." A suitably crestfallen Sheikh took Akhmir and dropped him off at his hotel in the backpackers' ghetto of Paharganj.

Sheikh, of course, was later sprung from Indian jail by his fellow Jaish e Mohammad terrorists by hijacking an Indian Airlines plane full of passengers and taking them to Taliban land.

But what is noticeable was the fear that the presence of an Israeli, alone and unarmed, aroused in these Islamic terrorists. There was an obvious assumption here that the Israeli would fight back and that there was a good chance some, if not all, of the terrorists would be killed.

There is an entire mythology about Israelis as the ultimate warrior race. Israeli diplomats themselves get a little weary about this. "We do other things well other than just fight," they say, trying to play up their skills in software (they export more than India does) or desert agriculture (even Arab farmers use their equipment).

But more so than most legends, there is an element of truth in the Israeli legend.

When Tel Aviv issues a threat to a neighbouring Arab state, it is taken seriously. The working assumption is that Israel means what it says, until there is evidence to prove otherwise. When it comes to credibility, no one has more of the stuff.

In addition, Israel has shown a stunning willingness to place a narrow national interest over almost everything else. Hence their adoption of a policy of preventative war and a willingness to use disproportionate violence against security threats well before the United States adopted it after September 11. No better example of this focus on survival exists then Israel's sinking of US Navy spy ship, Liberty, and killing of over 30 US sailors in 1967.

It is thus no surprise that many in India, and not those in the military or extreme Hindu nationalists, see Israel as a model for their own country. For most Indians it seems that their country has absorbed huge numbers of terrorist strikes, the bulk of them by organisations backed or tolerated by the Pakistani government. They look at the map and wonder: Pakistan is a sixth the size of India and gets away with this. They look again and notice that Israeli is less than a sixth the size of its Arab neighbours. Yet the latter live in fear of Israel while India seems unwilling or unable to take action against Pakistan.

And while as a percentage of its population, India has suffered a lot less than Israel, the numbers are still high. The Indian government estimates that about 40,000 lives have been lost in the insurgency in Kashmir alone. Which is why the first visit of an Israeli prime minister to India receives so much public attention. Forget about the West Asia peace process. India has no role or influence other than words. Forget about Pakistan. Israel has no role or influence there either. What attracts Israelis to many Indians is its long-standing policy of taking the fight to the other side. "Better the violence happen on his side, not yours," said a senior Israeli diplomat who visited India in July.

But there are severe limits to the lessons Israelis can give Indians about fighting terrorism. And it's not just because India lacks the huge technological superiority in weapons that Israel has over its neighbours - though that is important as well.

There are two main conceptual constraints. First is the widely-held belief in the Indian elite that their country is destined to be a great power, certain to eventually get a seat at the high table of the international community. This has meant that New Delhi is rarely, if ever, willing to break international law or otherwise carry out rogue actions. If anything, India has a reputation from Washington to Wellington of being beastly when a treaty is being negotiated, but Honest Abe in fulfilling the spirit and letter of the clauses afterwards.

This has made the sort of willingness of Israel to play the rogue more or less outside the purview of India's foreign policy. India could carry out pre-emptive wars or sponsor its own terrorists. But the cost would be an end or postponement of its dream of becoming a big player. And Pakistan or the
Jaish-e-Mohammad or the Khalistanis, however much damage they can do to India, never really threaten the very survival of India. Just erode some of the country's self-esteem.

Second is the simple fact that beating up on Pakistan is much more difficult than beating up on many of the Arab countries that Israel tackles. Pakistan's population, the length of the Indo-Pakistani border and the presence of China mean that New Delhi can never expect to decisively beat Islamabad in the manner Israel beat its Arab neighbours in the Yom Kippur War.

In addition, there is the enormously important role played by Pakistan's nuclear arsenal. Since the late 1980s, India's strategic thinking regarding Pakistan has assumed the latter has a credible nuclear deterrence. This means a completely different military posture and a recognition that Pakistan is a problem that needs to be managed and contained, rather than beaten and dismembered.

Ask an Israeli strategist if there policies would have been different if the Palestinians had nukes and his response is always "yes." One diplomat, in answer to that question, said, "There would be a Palestinian state by now if they had such weapons."

India should perhaps learn more from Israel in how the latter manages its alliances to enhance its security. Israel has a strange contradiction of being robustly independent about what it will do to preserve its security while being a US military ally which is enormously dependent on Washington for everything from butter to guns.

India wastes many strategic opportunities because of its fear of dependence. This is understandable. But Israel is an example of a country that plays its international cards so that it get its cake and eats it to. It may sound strange, but it is Israel's diplomatic craft and in particular its manipulation of Washington that India should be looking more closely at rather than its assassination squads and low-flying aerial warfare skills.

First Published: Sep 12, 2003 22:00 IST